“‘The Art of Dining’ uses sketch comedy much like Saturday Night Live,” Nicolet College Theatre director Jim Nuttall said. “It’s about a night at a chic new restaurant where the couple that own and operate it just can’t get it right. Cal, the husband and headwaiter, undermines his wife Ellen, who’s the chef, by eating up her creations before they can be served. The patrons add their own problems. And so it goes, with one funny bit after another.”
“This is not an easy play to pull off,” Nuttall added. “You’ve got actors who have to deliver their lines, keep the laughs coming, and cook (or eat) live on stage all at once.”
Cast member Bobbie Keso-Mode, who plays Ellen, says her past experience in musical theater helped with that. Keso-Mode was in the cast of Nicolet Theatre’s “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” in 2015. Two years later, she acted in the musical comedy “Nunsense” in Hazelhurst.
“In those plays, you learn the music, then the lines, then the dance steps,” Keso-Mode said. “Then you put it all together. Learning to play Ellen was kind of similar.”
“Food director” Marcia Sattelberg, whose job is to make the food prep on stage look real, came to “The Art of Dining” with a background in theatrical technical direction. She has helped with Nicolet College productions for years, after starting out with high school plays in the 1980s and then professional summerstock in Hazelhurst.
“My biggest challenge is coming up with cooking moves that can be done by someone who doesn’t necessarily know how to do that thing in real life,” Sattelberg said. “But those actions have to make sense in the show. They have to fit with the dialog, the tempo of the play, and the limited space on stage. There have been lots of re-does until we get something that works.”
“Actors do best when they have an actual task to perform and aren’t just pretending to look like they’re doing something,” Nuttall said. “We wanted to give Ellen something realistic to do when she was cooking, and that was Marcia’s job to create.”
Of course, “realistic” doesn’t always mean “real.” In one scene, Ellen is preparing mussels. Sattelberg bought actual mussel shells to use on stage, but the mussel meat the audience sees is really clay. In another case, she subbed in painted rocks where the script calls for mushrooms.
So the food being prepared in each scene isn’t always edible. Other times, the action involves real ingredients, but the food consumed by the actor is something different. In one hilarious bit, Ellen whips up a supposed Hollandaise sauce using cream, eggs, and so forth, but the “sauce” slurped down by Cal is actually pudding.
Unseen by the audience, crews will work backstage to prepare real food, brought onstage by Cal, for the actors to eat when the fake food made onstage just won’t do.
Keso-Mode is having a wonderful time rehearsing for the play, and that promises good things for the audiences in November. “With every rehearsal we do, the funnier it gets,” she said. “Jim is a fantastic director. He’s really bringing out the best in us. I told my family, you’re going to want to see this twice because there’s so much good stuff going on at once.”
“We’ve got over-the-top characters, action that careens from one chaotic moment to the next, and disasters of all kinds,” Nuttall said. “It’s a really fun night at the theater, although it may make you think twice about ever eating out again!”
Performances in the Nicolet College Theatre take place the weekends of Nov. 8 to 10 and 14 to 17. Sunday shows start at 2 p.m. and all others at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets are $10 general admission and $8 for students and seniors and can be ordered at nicoletlive.com or by calling 715-365-4646.
Special desserts prepared just for the play, beer and wine will be available before the performance and during the intermission.
The Nicolet College Theatre is in the Lakeside Center on the Rhinelander Campus, one mile south of the city just off of Hwy. G.